Church Files Show Missteps as Priest's Abuses Continued

New York Times/April 6, 2002
By Benjamin Weiser and Daniel J. Wakin

When the Rev. Edward A. Pipala, a Catholic school teacher in Staten Island, appeared at the offices of the New York Archdiocese at 5:45 one morning in 1977, he was nervous and scared. The mother of a teenage student had accused him of a sexual encounter with her son.

Father Pipala met with the archdiocese's chancellor, a longtime friend, and acknowledged the incident.

"I think I need some help," he told the chancellor, according to a deposition he made later.

The archdiocese decided to handle the case informally, without reporting the abuse to the police. Instead, a church official ordered Father Pipala to begin therapy with a psychologist.

He was sent to a parish in Westchester County run by a pastor known as a stern taskmaster. The archdiocese promised the teenage boy's family that Father Pipala "would not work with children," an internal archdiocese memo shows.

Over the next 15 years, the archdiocese abandoned its promise, failed to follow through on his therapy and allowed the priest to benefit from friendships with influential peers, according to interviews and church and court records.

As a result, Father Pipala served in two parishes running youth groups, and eventually became pastor at a third, in Goshen, N.Y. During that time, he molested as many as 50 boys, law enforcement officials said, initiating many of them into a fraternity he called the Hole.

The case came to light in 1993, devastating families and handing the archdiocese one of the most embarrassing and publicized cases of clergy sexual misconduct in the American Catholic Church. Father Pipala served seven years in prison and was removed from the priesthood.

Details of the abuse became widely known, but the archdiocese's handling of the case, spelled out in church files and sworn depositions by church officials and Father Pipala, was largely kept from public view until now.

On Wednesday, amid the latest nationwide scandal over the sexual abuse of minors by priests, the archdiocese announced new guidelines for dealing with the problem.

They require the establishment of a paper trail, a formal investigation by church officials and a decision by a panel of lay and clergy experts on whether to alert law enforcement.

No one knows whether such rules would have stopped a serial molester like Father Pipala, who also proved adept at manipulating the system. But an examination of the archdiocese's handling of his case shows what can happen in the absence of both strict rules and vigilance at all levels, from parish priests to high-ranking church officials.

In addressing Father Pipala's 1977 incident, the church did follow prevailing psychiatric wisdom about pedophilia and related sexual conditions: that they were medical illnesses that were curable or at least controllable, and did not necessarily require the involvement of law enforcement. Details of how the church dealt with the priest in the ensuing years, however, portray an archdiocese hobbled by gaps in communication within its own ranks.

In 1988, when Father Pipala was made pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Goshen, a church official who had handled the 1977 abuse case even warned the archdiocese against promoting him.

"I would not have made Ed Pipala a pastor," the official, Msgr. Thomas P. Leonard, recalled telling one of his successors as director of priest personnel, according to a legal deposition.

In an interview this week, Monsignor Leonard added that the archdiocese should never have allowed him to work again with children.

Through an acquaintance, Mr. Pipala, now 63, refused to comment. "I think he sees it not only as a question of morals but as a question of sickness," said the acquaintance, the Rev. John Grange, a former classmate of Mr. Pipala's who is in occasional contact with him.

"He gets care," Father Grange said. "It relieves him somewhat of the terrible guilt he feels. And he feels terrible."

A spokesman for the archdiocese, Joseph Zwilling, said he had no comment on the Pipala case, because those who made decisions at the time were either dead or no longer officials at the archdiocese, and because the man was removed from the priesthood after his release from prison in July 2000. "We are not going to go through our old cases and rehash them in the media," Mr. Zwilling said.

Interviews with people who knew the former priest, internal archdiocese records, his own correspondence with church officials and depositions in more than a dozen lawsuits brought by victims that were secretly settled by the archdiocese, show how the priest was able to flourish despite the 1977 incident and continuing questions about his conduct.

Throughout Father Pipala's career, church officials seemed unsure of just what to do with their fellow priest, singularly undistinguished as a student but regarded early on as a gifted leader of young people.

"He said he needed psychiatric help because of his homosexuality," Monsignor Leonard said in his deposition.

But the church did not want to cast out one of its own, he suggested.

"He has to have a place to stay; you give yourself over to the church, you have to be cared for," Monsignor Leonard said.

After Father Pipala went to prison, he was visited by Cardinal John J. O'Connor, who led the New York Archdiocese from 1984 until his death in 2000.

Bishop James F. McCarthy, the cardinal's secretary, said in a recent interview, "Even if the priest screwed up, he's still your priest."

Father Pipala's road to the priesthood was not auspicious. He flunked out of Cathedral College, a Catholic preparatory school in Manhattan, in 1957, after teachers rated him "disagreeable" at times and without much hope for improvement.

He went on to the seminary, though, and was ordained a priest in 1966.

By 1975, he was teaching at Moore Catholic High School in Staten Island.

Less than two years later, early in 1977, the woman complained to an archdiocese official that Father Pipala had molested her 14-year-old son, according to records.

She said her son had complained that while on an overnight outing, Father Pipala had slept in the same bed with him and touched his genitals. The boy, shaken, had pretended to be asleep.

The archdiocese official suggested that the family confront Father Pipala, which they did.

Father Pipala said in his deposition that he then presented himself to Bishop Joseph O'Keefe, the No. 2 official in the archdiocese and a friend. In their morning meeting, Father Pipala did not admit to the touching, but said he had become sexually aroused when embracing the boy, according to the deposition.

The matter was referred to Monsignor Leonard, the archdiocese's personnel director. Monsignor Leonard said he saw his responsibility as helping Father Pipala to contact a therapist who could help him.

"We went by what was possible at the time, and followed what the medical advice of the time suggested," said Monsignor Leonard, 74, now pastor at Holy Trinity Church on West 82nd Street.

Bishop O'Keefe terminated Father Pipala's assignment to the Staten Island school and transferred him to the Church of St. Joseph in Croton Falls, N.Y., where he was to work under the supervision of a strict pastor, Daniel Brady, and not be in contact with children.

Monsignor Leonard said he may not have explicitly told Father Brady the details of the incident, adding that he felt torn between Father Pipala's need for medical confidentiality, and his own obligation as a church official.

"Where do you cross that line where you're trying to help somebody without ruining their reputation?" he asked.

Monsignor Leonard said he did implore Father Brady to be sure that Father Pipala was not around children, and that he got the treatment he needed. Monsignor Leonard soon left his personnel post and had no further involvement in the case.

Over the next year, Father Pipala saw Richard D. Milone, a psychiatrist in Harrison, N.Y.

Dr. Milone declined comment on the case, citing patient confidentiality. Dr. Milone confirmed that, at the time, pedophilia and related conditions were seen as reversible, a view that did not change until the mid-1980's.

Within six months of starting treatment, he began a relentless campaign to become a pastor. Writing to Monsignor Leonard, he said that his therapist "feels I am more likely to function more efficiently as a pastor in a small parish."

Monsignor Leonard said in his deposition that he tried to discourage those ambitions. "When you say pastor," he wrote, "that adds another dimension that I am unable to answer at this moment."

On June 6, 1977, Father Pipala wrote to then-Monsignor O'Keefe with a progress report, saying that his therapist felt he was "doing very well" and blaming the incident on repressed tensions and anger. He said he worried that the incident would be a stigma on his record.

In 1979, he appealed directly to Cardinal Terence Cooke for a pastorship, saying three years had passed since his "health problems" and that a doctor had given him a "clean bill." He was rejected.

Two years later, after stressing his work with young people, he won a job as associate pastor at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Monroe, N.Y., under a pastor he had known since early in his career.

In Monroe, Father Pipala settled into his job, coordinating the youth ministry and working in drug and alcohol programs. His license plate read, "Fred 66," a play on his nickname, Father Ed, and the year of his ordination.

He also assumed a darker role: founder and leader of a club called the Hole, based in the church basement.

It had several dozen members - all teenage boys, some with strained relations with parents, others from broken homes. The priest said in his deposition that he based the Hole on the "philosophy of having someone who would be there all the time, a place that one could go to share their thoughts and feeling and not ending up in some bar talking to some strange bartender."

Yet, he said he gave the boys beer and liquor and showed them pornographic videos. Father Pipala created an initiation ceremony in which the teenagers, sworn to secrecy, joined him in masturbating into a red cloth, an act he would later compare to an ancient "tribal" ritual. Each boy was given a small square of the cloth, and a T-shirt with his number on the back.

By the time of his arrest in 1993, prosecutors said his abuse had extended to oral and anal sex. They said dozens of minors were initiated into his club and that he molested boys in rectories, at a Jersey Shore condominium and during a vacation in Massachusetts.

Throughout his seven years in Monroe, Father Pipala continued to be frustrated in his attempts to win his own parish, letters from his personnel file show.

But when he wrote archdiocese officials asking if there were any doubts about his "health situation," they told him not to worry.

"In response to your direct question whether you should pursue the pastorate my direct answer is `yes,' " Bishop O'Keefe wrote back on Feb. 25, 1985. "You have many years ahead of you to continue a fruitful priesthood. Be patient. In time things will come together."

Another personnel director in 1986 went further. "The future is bright with promise," said the Rev. Henry J. Mansell, now the bishop of Buffalo.

All along, the personnel file shows, Father Pipala touted his skill at working with young people. Finally, in July 1988, Cardinal O'Connor appointed him a pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Goshen.

It is unclear whether Cardinal O'Connor or his predecessor, Cardinal Cooke, knew about Father Pipala's history.

"I know that your dedication to the Lord and his Church will have a fruitful influence on the young people of St. John's," Cardinal O'Connor wrote.

The word that Father Pipala was going to lead his own parish stunned Monsignor Leonard, the former personnel director.

During a priest's gathering in New York a few weeks after the appointment, he bluntly told the personnel director who had recommended the promotion, the Rev. Lawrence M. Connaughton, that it was a mistake.

"He said nothing," Monsignor Leonard recalled in his deposition.

In an interview, Monsignor Connaughton said he did not remember the conversation. He said the personnel board collectively came up with Father Pipala's name, and that there was no inkling of a problem.

"You can't help but feel badly," he said. "The community seemed to think highly of him. Apparently he was able to fool a number of people for a considerable period of time."

In Goshen, Father Pipala continued to live a double life, winning praise from some parishioners as an involved and dedicated priest while covertly molesting boys.

But some in the parish and archdiocese were questioning his behavior, and why he so often surrounded himself with young boys, taking them to dinner and on overnight trips.

In 1989, for example, the parents of one boy who attended John S. Burke Catholic High School in Goshen asked a summer priest in the church whether it was appropriate for their son to be around Father Pipala. The priest said he advised them that it was not. "I wasn't comfortable with the way he interacted with children," said the priest, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Word of the concern got back to Father Pipala. Another of the priests in Goshen who worked under him complained about the parade of teenage boys through the rectory.

Father Pipala said in his deposition that he was questioned by Msgr. Edward D. O'Donnell, the archdiocese personnel director at the time, about the complaint and assured him all was well.

Father Pipala said in the deposition that Monsignor O'Donnell had suggested that he check in with Dr. Milone, the psychiatrist in Harrison. "Just update your own counseling situation," he said he was told.

In an interview, Monsignor O'Donnell said he was simply responding to a complaint about too many teenagers in the rectory and did not ascribe sexual overtones to it. He said he did not remember being aware at the time of the 1977 incident, but he recalled running across an ambiguous report about it in Father Pipala's personnel file several years later.

In March 1992, Monsignor O'Donnell called to say that the parents of a Monroe student were complaining that Father Pipala had sexually abused their son. "He asked me if I, if that was true, and I said `yes,' " Father Pipala said.

Monsignor O'Donnell immediately removed Father Pipala from Goshen, and within a month the priest was sent for long-term treatment at St. Luke Institute, a psychiatric hospital in Suitland, Md.

But even there, records show, he was still writing to his victims. "Hi Bro," he wrote to one. "Life at St. Luke is interesting. I could literally write a book." He signed it, "Love ya!, Fred."

It was not until early 1993 that the case became known to law enforcement authorities, after a victim approached the Orange County district attorney. That summer, Father Pipala pleaded guilty to state charges of sodomy and sexual abuse and federal counts of taking minors across state lines and molesting them.

On April 15, 1994, as he was sentenced, Judge Pano Z. Patsalos of Orange County Court said that Father Pipala's superiors had known about his problem for many years.

"Unfortunately, their manner of handling such abuse was to hide from it," he said, "by transferring you from one community to another, thereby exposing you to new and greater number of children for you to abuse, to violate, and to permanently injure."

But Father Pipala was not held to account for all of his victims. Prosecutors said only six were willing to come forward and cooperate in the investigation.

And because the abuse dated back so far, victims were also limited in their ability to sue. Ultimately, about a dozen lawsuits were filed, which the archdiocese settled on confidential terms, plaintiffs' lawyers said.

Some victims also declined to sue, said two lawyers, Marc D. Orloff and Barbara J. Strauss, who represented some of the victims. "Some of it may be fear, some of it may be residual loyalty to the church, moral ambiguity about what to do," Mr. Orloff said.

After the priest's arrest in 1993, Monsignor O'Donnell, the archdiocese personnel director, got a call from the brother of the boy molested years before at Moore High School, his own records show.

In a note to the file, Monsignor O'Donnell said that the brother asked why Father Pipala had been allowed to continue to work with children. The brother spoke of the "renewed anguish that he, his mother, and his brother have had to endure."

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